Elimination Eval: Washington Capitals

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again. For first time readers, welcome to my yearly Elimination Eval series that I'm excited to bring to Blueshirt Banter! In these evaluations, I breakdown how each team's playoff run went, whether or not it was a success and what could come next as a result. It rarely works out where the first one of the season is a result of the Rangers success but nevertheless, let’s talk about the Washington Capitals. 

The end of an era or on the brink of greatness, the Capitals are certainly in a once in a lifetime situation. While on an organizational level, they are without question in the midst of a serious retool, there’s really one goal in mind at this point. No, it’s not winning. It’s getting Alexander Ovechkin north of 894 career goals. Wayne Gretzky holds the league's all-time goal scoring record and since his retirement, no one ever expected that record to get broken. Flash forward a couple of decades and Alex Ovechkin is now just 41 goals away from tying it, 42 from passing it. Despite the fact that he will go into next season as a 39 year-old, Ovechkin still has two years left on his contract which gives him as good a chance as any to rewrite NHL history. 

But before we get any further into that, let’s break down Washington’s season. Frankly, not many folks expected the Capitals to even sniff the playoffs and to be fair, they barely made it. It took a pretty colossal end of season breakdown from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that wasn’t necessarily expecting to be in the conversation either, in order for Washington to sneak in there. The Flyers were surprisingly mainstays in third place of the Metropolitan Division for most of the season but between a strong finish from the Capitals, some help from the Red Wings and poor officiating, the Flyers found themselves tied with Washington in the third period of a game they absolutely needed to win in regulation. In a move only he could make, gutsy coach John Tortorella emptied the Flyers net in attempts to pull it off but Washington capitalized and earned themselves the last Wild Card spot in the process. 

They don’t ask how, they ask how many and the Capitals had just enough to punch their playoff ticket. However, getting there was quite the battle which resulted in them essentially playing weeks of playoff hockey in order to get there. It wouldn’t help that they would run into the Presidents’ Trophy Winning New York Rangers in round one. Of all the first round match-ups this year, this was the only one that pretty much everyone in the hockey world really expected to be over in 4-5 games. The Rangers were the best team in the league entering the playoffs and are on a mission to end the year in glory. Washington was just happy to be here. 

The Rangers quickly took control of Game 1 with a decisive 4-1 win and stayed the course through a closer Game 2. Game 3 would prove to be Washington’s best chance at making this a series but what was a recurring theme throughout the series, continued to keep Washington out of contention. Special teams were hands down the low point for the Capitals as they would go 2-for-17 on power plays across the four games of the series with both of those conversions coming in Game 2. This also played a huge part in why Ovechkin went pointless, nearly shotless throughout the entire series. 

It didn’t take long for the Rangers to take advantage of what was meant to be advantages for Washington and frankly, Ovechkin did more harm than good in those situations. We all joke about how Ovechkin doesn’t stray far from his “office” but throughout the series, there were so many power plays for the Capitals where he would truly just stand and wait there. To the point where it was basically 4-on-4 hockey, leading to several shorthanded opportunities for the Rangers, two of which they were able to capitalize on. That continued in Game 3 as Barclay Goodrow scored what became the game-winning-goal on a Washington power play. 

The Rangers did everything they possibly could to give Washington the chances as they had six penalties alone in Game 3. Special teams continued to define the series when it mattered most as the Rangers went 3-for-4 on the power play in Game 4 and kept the Capitals off the board through two timely power play chances. While it wouldn’t work out in their favor, Game 4 proved to be the high point for the Capitals as they got off to a fiery start and played their most inspiring hockey of the series. It’s difficult to really pinpoint a “game changing moment” of the series seeing as the Rangers swept, but allowing that power play goal early in the third and failing to pick up a win on home ice certainly became Washington’s downfall in the postseason. 

Which brings us to everyone’s favorite question this time of year, where do they go from here? Well first off, the Capitals have to ask themselves whether or not they feel this season was a success. While it may not necessarily feel like it right now, you have to think from an organizational standpoint that the results are pretty satisfactory. Again, the expectation going into this season wasn’t very high, at least from outside perspectives. Therefore, the fact that they were able to squeeze into the playoffs, get some of those younger guys that experience and make an honest attempt against a Cup contending team, should certainly be viewed as a success. 

The good news for Washington is they aren’t in a situation where they’re going to lose a ton of players in the off-season. They have Max Pacioretty and Nicolas Aube-Kubel as their top pending UFA’s but outside of that, they’ll be able to run it back with much of the same. While that may not sound too promising after a first round exit, it’s worth reiterating that for as many veterans as this team has, they have a good amount of younger, in-house talent. The impact AHL development can have on an organization can not be overstated and Washington has the potential to be quite an example of that. 

Several key players to this current Washington team were a part of last season’s Calder Cup Winning Hershey Bears team. That list includes younger names with higher potential such as Connor McMichael, Aleksei Protas, Hendrix Lapierre and several others. One name in particular that stood out to me watching this series was Beck Malenstyn. While he doesn’t have as high a ceiling as some of those previously mentioned names, he proved to be an effective bottom-six, sandpaper type of player. If Washington can continue to develop through their minor league affiliate, while continuing to draft and go through the retool stages, they’ll be set up for the future rather nicely.  

Pacioretty could come back on a cheap deal if he’s happy in Washington but outside of that, I wouldn’t expect Washington to worry too much about any of their pending UFA’s. They don’t have a ton of cap space to work with and have a small handful of RFA’s to take care of. McMichael, Malenstyn and defenseman Hardy Haman Akell will be in need of new contracts which will limit Washington’s options on the open market. All the more reason that Washington could start next season looking quite similar to how they finished this year. 

They could look to clear out some cap space in potential trades but that likely wouldn’t happen until next season’s trade deadline. Both T.J. Oshie and Nic Dowd are entering the final year of their contract and could get General Manager Brian Macllelan a decent haul of assets in return, however there does appear to be some injury concerns regarding Oshie's future that are just now being reported. One potential move they could explore leading up to the draft in the off-season would involve shopping who has become their number two goaltender in Darcy Kuemper. The 33 year-old, former Cup Champion started in just 30 games for the Capitals this season and is on the books for another three seasons at just a quarter over five million dollars per year. 

Which brings us to one of the biggest questions for Washington moving forward; What are they going to do in net? Charlie Lindgren redefined his career as he became Washington’s number one this year but will be entering the final year of his contract with an annual average value of just over one million dollars. Do the Capitals look to move Kuemper and get Lindgren signed to an extension? Or do they sell high on Lindgren and look to rejuvenate the goaltender that led Colorado to a Stanley Cup just two years ago? Kuemper’s contract could be tough to move but there’s enough teams in need of goaltending that could leave the potential for a hockey trade to be made. 

Even with a more flexible budget, the Capitals don’t have much of a reason to be big spenders in free agency but it would be worth bringing on anyone they can afford who excels in passing the puck and making plays. As mentioned before, the organization is doing all the right things through this retool phase while being mindful that their face of the franchise has the chance to achieve greatness. Anything they can do to help him break the goal-scoring record will absolutely be on the table. On top of that, they’ll be hopeful that Ovechkin’s right hand man Nicklas Backstrom will be able to make a return after missing most of this season with an issue related to his surgically repaired hip.  

On top of that, Washington has a couple of other diamonds in the rough in Ivan Miroschnichenko and Andrew Cristal. Miroschnichenko made his NHL debut late this season and could make the team out of camp to start next year. Putting him on the opposite side of Ovechkin’s line could be something real exciting to watch, especially if Backstrom can make a comeback. Additionally, Andrew Cristall was highly regarded by many folks including generational talent Connor Bedard who called him “the smartest player” he ever played with. He might be a bit further from a full-time NHL job, but is another reminder that brighter days are ahead as Washington navigates a future past the Ovechkin/Backstrom era. 

Here’s a projected line-up based on who they still have under contract for next season (RFA’s included):

Ovechkin - Strome - Miroschnichenko

Protas - Lapierre - Wilson

Milano - McMichael - Oshie

Malenstyn - Dowd - ?


Fehervary - Carlson

Sandin - Jensen

Alexeyev - Bear

Haman Aktell - McIlrath

All things considered, the Capitals may have had the shortest run in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it comes as great experience for their younger players and is an encouraging step in their process. They have a great young coach in Spencer Carbery who is doing all the right things in shaping the future of this team while keeping its veteran core in mind. They may not make any big splashes in the off-season, but it will be interesting to see what decisions they make regarding their goaltending as well as how they’ll look to keep Ovechkin scoring goals.